Every Friday for several weeks now the western media publishes the same story.  This is of protests in Syria, which are invariably said to be the “amongst the biggest” or “the biggest ever”.  A list of towns in Syria is given where the protests are said to have taken place.  References are made to film supposedly of the protests appearing on YouTube. Reports are provided of violence against the protesters by the security forces.  Dozens and sometimes scores of people are said to have been killed.  These deaths are then added to a mounting total of deaths since the protests began, which is then published every week and now runs to well over a thousand.

It requires careful reading to notice that these reports all have one origin, which is the Syrian opposition, and that they lack any credible outside verification or corroboration.  Whilst protests have unquestionably taken place it is a remarkable act of faith to assume that those who claim to be organising the protests are the ones who can be trusted to report them accurately.

It is an act of faith which recent events show is unwarranted.  Back in February, just a month before the protest movement in Syria began, a wave of protests hit Libya.  As is now the case with Syria western reporting of the protests in Libya amounted to reproducing claims about the protests made by the Libyan opposition.  Many of these claims were extremely lurid.  Thus the western media uncritically reproduced stories of peaceful protesters being fired on by heavy machine guns, of mercenaries attacking protesters with machetes and of the Libyan air force bombing residential suburbs.  Inflated claims were made of the number of protesters killed with figures eventually running into thousands leading to talk of genocide charges.

On the ground investigations in Libya by such agencies as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International have since shown that the claims about the protests made by the Libyan opposition in February and uncritically reproduced by the western media at the time were almost entirely untrue.  The Libyan authorities did not fire on peaceful protesters with heavy machine guns.  There are no large numbers of machete wielding mercenaries in Libya.  The Libyan air force did not bomb residential districts.  As for the number of people killed the true number turned out to be not the thousands claimed by the Libyan opposition but the hundred or so reported at the time by the Libyan government.

There is no reason to think that the claims the Syrian opposition are making today are any more reliable than the claims the Libyan opposition made in February.  Uncritical acceptance of Libyan opposition claims led western governments into a military intervention they probably now regret, which has turned out to be based on a string of wrong assumptions and false facts.  Given that this is so one wonders why in reporting Syria the western media seems so intent on making the same mistake.


3 thoughts on “REPORTING SYRIA

  1. You wrote some time ago about the non-credible reporting emerging from the Middle East and Africa. A theory has emerged in which according to the theorists an online astroturfer-for-hire is promoting pro- or anti-government ideas in different places across the so-called Arab Spring.
    This is a collaborative piece (whose authors include a friend of mine), which investigates the mystery of this Liliane Khalil character. it doesn’t remove much of the mystery, in fact it almost increases the mystery, but it is interesting reading in light of your earlier commentary.
    If local news reports are uncritically accepted in the west as you claim, and they lead to western government actions, this is something to be aware of. The MEA revolutions are also heavily influenced by non-government news sources such as blogs and twitter accounts.

    • Dear Haukur,
      Very interesting! Thanks for this. This is going on all the time and it is extremely important to be careful before lending credence to reports coming out of the Middle East. For example we know that a crackdown of some sort is currently underway in the Syrian town of Hama if only because the Syrian government has admitted it. However the claim that one hundred people were killed in Hama on Sunday is totally uncorroborated. Though it is a figure originating from opposition sources, who have a vested interest in exaggerating the scale of the violence in Hama, it has nonetheless been reported as if it were true. I would add that a demonstration took place in Hama on 1st July 2011 that the Guardian and most of the British press claimed involved half a million people. The International Herald Tribune obviously basing its information on different sources by contrast gave a number for the people at the demonstration of just 30,000. The latter sounds more plausible though we have no way of knowing whether either was true.

      • Dear Haukur,
        Just one further point: one should extend the same skepticism about events in Syria to information originating with the Syrian government. Just as the opposition has a vested interest in exaggerating the scale of the violence and of the unrest so the Syrian government has an equal interest in minimising both.

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